LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland—Didrik Tønseth went into Sunday’s stage of the Tour de Ski ranked third, right where he wanted to be.
So did ambition get the better of him? By the finish of the 10 k skate pursuit, the 24-year-old Norwegian was on the ground, exhausted, having gained one place and then lost four in a blow-up of epic proportions.
Tønseth had closed a 13-second gap to superstar teammate Petter Northug in the opening lap of the 10 k skate pursuit, but when Northug attacked hard later, Tønseth couldn’t go with him. He ended up being caught and passed by several other skiers as he struggled though the final kilometers.
“After the race I have another opinion, but before the race I believed I could open hard and that the pace was good,” Tønseth admitted to FasterSkier after the finish. “But maybe it was too hard in the opening.”
The two had not compared notes over breakfast (as they had joked they would in the previous days press conference), and Northug was surprised to find Tønseth on his tails so early in the race.
“I was shocked when he caught up with me so early in the race,” Northug told Norwegian daily Dagbladet on Saturday. “Just then, I felt like a bad skier.”
Fans have seen Northug many times wait until the final hundred meters before putting on a furious finishing sprint to dust his competitors – Norwegian newspaper VG even compiled a list of the most famous incidents.
So when Tønseth told FasterSkier that he hoped for some more help from Northug in the middle section of the race, it was hard to find the precedent.
But at the same time, in many previous races Northug waited even longer before attacking – sometimes until just 300 or 100 meters from the finish. Tønseth was caught by surprise when Northug went for it with two kilometers to go, putting 20 seconds on the younger racer almost immediately.
That’s the move of a champion.
“It didn’t matter if you were a Norwegian or Swede or anything,” Tønseth told FasterSkier. “When he is in beast mode there isn’t any difference.”
Tønseth set a podium finish in the Tour de Ski as a goal before the event began. He had a good start, making the semifinals in the skate sprint – his first World Cup semifinal ever, and only the second time he has made it out of qualifying.
His next test is a classic sprint. It will be another challenge for the distance specialist; in the opening World Cup classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland, this season, he finished 35th in qualifying.
“I’m not sure about the classic, we’ll see,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll have some luck.”
With bonus seconds from the sprint on the line, it could very well turn out to be essential in determining the Tour de Ski podium.
“There are a couple of good sprinters up there [in the rankings], with Finn [Hagen Krogh] and [Sergei] Ustiugov,” Tønseth said. “So sprint is really important.”
But once he’s through that, things should look up for Tønseth. If it’s any consolation, he has a relatively solid hold on sixth for the moment, with a 38-second gap to seventh-place Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan.
And the last time he finished the Tour de Ski, in 2014, he was ninth – and made up 38 seconds on Northug in the final climb up the Alpe Cermis in Italy.
So can he regain his podium position soon?
“I hope for the best!”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.